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10 Shocking Psychological Experiments You’ve Never Heard About – Part II

The Stanford Prison Experiment (1973)

Are all humans inherently evil?

Many psychologists choose to base their theories on the dispositional hypothesis – the hypothesis that asserts that people do evil things because they have are, well, an evil person; evil, therefore, is inherently present in such humans and it manifests themselves in their behaviors. Take prison guards for at Abu Ghraib for an example; the chilling, graphic accounts of the violence that all the prisoners witness at the hands of the guards would make you want to crawl back into your skin.

Psychologists who support the dispositional hypothesis would say that this inhuman behavior is a result of the intrinsically inhuman dispositions of the guards. The results of Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment were not only shocking but they managed to disturb the entire psychological paradigm about what influences behavior – personality or environment.

Philip Zimbardo was unconvinced.

As a youth, Zimbardo saw many of his friends getting involved with drugs and violent crimes – his hypothesis asserted that human behavior is a product of its environment, and does not have its roots in our personality. With that in mind, Zimbardo drew up a sinister experiment which was funded by the Marine Corps and US Navy – the experiment consisted of assigning the roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison setting.


Newspaper ads were printed to recruit men who were willing to take part in a prison life study with a reward of $15 per day given to the participants for their contributions. Out of the initial 75, only 24 participants were selected after a detailed background search to ensure that only healthy, sane, completely normal men were going to be a part of the study.

The participants were then divided, arbitrarily into two groups – prisoners and guards, all participants signed a contract that guaranteed that all fundamental human rights would be upheld even in this setting. No further instructions were given to the prisoners except that they should be available at their homes on Sunday. The guards, however, were invited to an orientation meeting in which they were told to maintain an efficient, functioning prison environment without using any physical punishment. A detailed explanation was given about other prison duties, uniforms were provided which were eerily similar to those worn by prison guards and then the laboratory wing was converted into a make-shift yet realistic prison.


The experiment started off by arresting the prisoners from their homes on Sunday; these arrests were carried out by the Palo Alto Police Department and were necessary as to establishing the reality of the experiment on the prisoners. They were treated the exact same way that convicts were on their arrest; stripped, deloused and made to stand naked for a considerable amount of time before being given their prisoner uniforms. Coupled with the realistic, probably embarrassing arrest, the mugshots and then finally being made to stand naked exactly like a guilty criminal enforced a social role on the innocent men.

Every single detail was meant to emasculate the prisoners; from the smock uniform, rubber sandals and lock and chain around the ankle to the identification number being issued as if to strip them of their identity and eventually, humanity – was a step taken by Zimbardo to make the simulation life-like. The guards emanated an aura of control with their authoritative manner, black sunglasses and batons in order to further intimidate the prisoners. While the situation remained in control initially, it soon began to spiral out of hand – until Zimbardo himself became so wrapped up in the situation of abuse that only his girlfriend Christina (now, wife) could stop the simulation.


The experiment was explosive; the condition of the prisoners went from mentally sane to being depressed, anxious, and passive in less than a week. Guards took their duty to heart and began to exercise brutal authority over the prisoners, even forcing one prisoner to spend the night in solitary confinement – a small cell without any light source.

The interactions between prisoners and guards became explosively hostile, some prisoners rebelled but others embraced the situation with a passiveness uncharacteristic of normal men. While some guards refused to assert their authority between that granted to them, others were not so merciful and began to harass the prisoners; forcing them to urinate in an unclean bucket that would remain in their cell. The prisoners lost their identity after being repeatedly called by their ID number and submitted to the loss of freedom. Guards were ready to work extra hours without pay just to taste the power of authority again.

The experiment was forcibly brought to an end after six days. The prisoners could no longer function in the prison. The crying, anxiety, depression, and hysteria were at their peak and had the experiment gone on any longer, Zimbardo could have seriously impaired the sanity of the participants involved.

Over this time period, around five prisoners were released from the prison due to their truly hysterical condition that prevented them from being a part of the study anymore. The experiment would have continued if Christina Maslach hadn’t interfered – it is also interesting to note that out of more than fifty people that had witnessed the distressing conditions of the simulated prison, Christina was the only one to be horrified at the scene.


The results are astonishing as they point out that when social roles are enforced, people are quick to adapt to these roles and conform to the traits usually associated with these roles. It also shows that humans are capable of great destruction and violence as they can be conditioned into performing tasks that can be fatal to our own humanity. This poses the question of free will – are we truly free and conscious or will our minds forever be controlled by our environment?

Zimbardo said yes. We are chiefly controlled by our environment and whatever behaviors we show, whatever actions we take are all based on our situations. This is the situational hypothesis. We may not be inherently evil but we can be made to act evilly provided that the appropriate stimuli be provided to our minds – which are fairly susceptible and vulnerable to these influences.

Even you and I would inflict the same torture on the prisoners, had we been allocated as guards in this setting.

Shocking, right?

In the next part of this series, we’ll have a look inside psychiatric hospitals and wards around the US with Rosenhaan and see if psychiatrists are truly capable of differentiating the mentally sound from the insane. Stay tuned for another shock to the human mind!

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